Thrillist sure does look big for a seven-year-old. Starting in 2006 as an e-mail blast to help 21-to-35-year-old New York “lads” navigate the City’s nightlife, the company has ballooned into a $40 million revenue generator, with offices in twenty cities and more than three million subscribers.
Embedded into many of these daily e-mails is Thrillist Allied, the company’s branded content play, offering brand partners access to the nearly three million Thrillist subscribers with content written by Thrillist writers and editors.
We spoke to Thrillist Media Group CEO Ben Lerer and EIC Keith Blanchard in their New York City SoHo office, and asked them about content, eyeballs, social, and email open rates.
Content: OK, guys, what’s your secret sauce to shareable, branded content, specifically the type of content that appears in Thrillist Allied?
Ben: If we're writing about a new restaurant, there are ways to do it better than others; It comes down to classic news pegs—classic journalism, best business practices, meaningful partnerships, people with like-minded audiences. You offer them exposure. It's easier to leverage a brand’s audience with social. We slap the Facebook Like Page. There's a layer of data beneath that. At the end of the day, it's art and science and you have to know if the content is the right kind of content for the audience. Our goal is to make content with a brand partner and create a seamless experience.
Keith: Be excellent. It's classic journalism, plus real-time feedback. It's not every quarter, you know, it's every day.
Content: What plays well for Thrillist, content-wise?
Ben: Image heavy content plays. People don't like to read.
Keith: People make their choice via image, then they'll read.
Content: Is there time to keep looking at the product when you're making so much of it?
Keith: You have to make time to reflect—you gotta do a postmortem. I hear phrases, like “We're inventing the future.” That's why I came here. There's heat. This is the forge of the future, the philosophy of living in the post-advertising age, the notion that we can replace the worst of traditional advertising. Every time I'm watching football, I don't want to buy a jeep.
Content: Let’s talk editorial architecture. When you write about products for Thrillist Rewards, your localized experiences platform, are you starting from a product benefit strategy or a consumer-based one?
Keith: We are always trying to produce service or entertainment. Even if the reader is not going to buy the product, the content should be entertaining. We try to give readers a bit of social ammunition.o produce service or entertainment. Even if the reader is not going to buy the product, the content should be entertaining. We try to give readers a bit of social ammunition.
Ben: We're trying to connect guys with fun, smart ways to spend their time and their money. We recently wrote about Pizza Hut-scented cologne. We're not recommending you wear it, but it's funny. It's a great door that lets new people get exposed to what we do.
Content: What doesn't work?
Ben: We do less to get readers back and more to find what content is driving people away. Our best content will also be our most hated content—a funny product that a group will consider misogynistic or expensive and out of this world, or we write about a restaurant that’s in a neighborhood unrelated to where [a reader] lives. We’ll hear about it.
Keith: Readers expect micro targeting, so you could lose them then.
Content: How do you leverage partnerships to grow the Thrillist brand?
Ben: This is changing. On the advertising side, we offer an opportunity to put a brand into the recommendation flow. And we can build content by doing a bunch of different things: Say there's a delicious new gum, it’s labeled as an ad, and we’ll use our tone, and write about rock music if that's what the brand cares about, we create content around it and distribute it through their channels. Or we’ll take their messages and put them around content we're creating that may be next to food or gadgets—adjacent to relevant content, but we didn't have a hand in the actual content.
Content: Your business model began with email marketing. What’s the key to getting consistently great open rates?
Keith: A headline in an email is an exertion to click-through to the website, where SEO matters. The way the piece lives on the web, we ask ourselves, “What are the terms we think we can own?” We did a Valentine’s Day story of fifty Beyond Victoria’s Secret lingerie shops. We're not going to try to own Victoria’s Secret.
Ben: We're publishing one thousand items a month. We have tools but we want to run a search in our CMS. We're building those input.
Content: Thrillist started as a three-man shop.
Ben: It was me and two others. The one common thread, early days, was we worked really, really hard, heads down, and we took great pride. We're 200 people today. There's been times it's gotten top heavy; we've been more biz minded than consumer minded and headed in the wrong direction for periods of time. It's every bit as hard today as in the beginning. We still feel very much like a startup. It's still a hungry young bunch of hustlers. We are combining content and commerce and it's interesting and also intimidating.